Las Vegas welcomes gay visitors
(06-08) 04:00 PDT Las Vegas -- When Andy Steele and Michael Turner stepped off their plane in Las Vegas, the first-time visitors from England were worried about how - as a gay couple - they'd be treated.
Unsure of the answer and not wanting any unwelcome surprises, they booked a room at an exclusively gay hotel well ahead of time. "At least at a gay resort, you have like-minded people," Steele remembers thinking.
Their worries evaporated as quickly as a raindrop in the desert. As they hopped into a taxi at the airport and asked to be driven to the Blue Moon Resort, they received a surprisingly warm reception.
"Most of the taxi drivers know the Blue Moon is a gay resort," Turner said. "But they go out of their way to be friendly and helpful."
They shouldn't have been surprised. The Rat Pack ethos, with its thinly veiled - or sometimes blatant - homophobia has long been relegated to nostalgia. There's a gay nightclub on the Strip, and plenty of others scattered around the city. Mayor Oscar Goodman, a former mob lawyer, marches in the annual gay pride parade.
Las Vegas, in fact, now outranks San Francisco as a destination for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender vacationers. It ranks second to New York and ahead of San Francisco in the latest Gay & Lesbian Tourism Study, conducted each year by Community Marketing Inc., a San Francisco research firm.
"Vegas is big and glitzy and exciting," said David Paisley, the firm's senior projects director, "and gays and lesbians are drawn to that."
Paisley says big-name shows - such as Elton John's "Red Piano" and Bette Midler's "The Showgirl Must Go On" - are huge draws. So, too, are the various Cirque du Soleil productions. In July, the Cirque casts will be rolling out the rainbow carpet for a variety of special events during Las Vegas' Gay Days and Nights festival.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has been advertising in magazines designed for gays and lesbians for years, and recently, it started running commercials on gay-oriented cable stations.
"For a long time, Las Vegas has been perceived to be an inclusive destination," said Terry Jicinsky, a gay man who is the convention authority's senior vice president of marketing. And, unlike some destinations, it doesn't need to remake its image for this audience. Gays and lesbians are attracted to Vegas for exactly the same reasons everyone else is. The agency, said Jicinsky is "not attempting to position Las Vegas as a destination for a 'gay experience,' such as Key West or Palm Springs might try to do."
Still, there are gay men who feel more comfortable, more able to be themselves, at an all-gay resort. For them, the Blue Moon offers a Palm Springs-style property. Located a few blocks west of the Strip in an industrial area, the resort includes a sauna, a steam room and a clothing-optional pool.
"They come to Vegas, they go and do the shows and then they come back to my hotel and they get their gay on," said owner John Hessling.
Trisha Glaha and Spring Buras, a lesbian couple from Burlington, Iowa, said it was a longtime fixture of Vegas - the wedding chapels - that attracted them. They recently professed their love for each other at the Viva Las Vegas chapel. An Elvis look-alike stood in for the preacher, urging the women "to always be each other's teddy bear and to never go to bed without giving each other a-hunk-a-hunk of burning love."
Nevada doesn't look like it will legalize same-sex marriage anytime soon, but John Foster, manager of Viva Las Vegas, says his chapel has hosted same-sex ceremonies for more than 10 years. Now the major Strip hotels invite gay and lesbian couples to hold ceremonies in their chapels.
Much of the after-dark scene is geared more for gay men than lesbians. But the biggest gay club, Krave, offers a hugely popular "Candy Bar" on Saturday nights. When it opened in 2004, Krave became the first property on the Las Vegas Strip created specifically for a gay crowd. It's still the only one.
"It's a matter of feeling comfortable," Hessling said. But, he predicts, with the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians, his hotel - and places like it - won't always have a niche market.
"Inevitably it will go the way of the dinosaur," he muses. "It's just a matter of time. I don't know that gay-exclusive properties will be around in 20 or 25 years."
If you go
WHERE TO STAY
Gay and lesbian visitors are made to feel welcome all over town. The major Strip properties have provided their employees with sensitivity training.
For gay men, there's the off-Strip Blue Moon Resort (866) 798-9194, www.bluemoonlasvegas.com. Weekend rooms in summer start at $139.
WHERE TO EAT
Border Grill, at Mandalay Bay. (702) 632-7403, www.bordergrill.com. Dinner entrees range from $15 to $35.
Lucky Cheng's, at Krave, is a drag cabaret restaurant. Dinner and show start at $50. (702) 733-6444, www.luckychengsrestaurant.com.
WHAT TO DO
Krave, the only alternative club on the Strip, is open Wednesdays through Sundays. Inside the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood. (702) 836-0830; www.kravelasvegas.com. Cover charges for nonmembers average $10-$20.
Several other popular bars and clubs can be found a few blocks east, on Paradise Road, in a neighborhood affectionately known as the "Fruit Loop."
Gay Days & Nights runs July 3-6 ( www.gaydaysandnights.com)
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Las Vegas visitors' bureau this spring published "The Out Guide to Las Vegas." It's free and includes a comprehensive list of nightlife venues. (877) 847-4858.
QVegas is a monthly magazine covering the gay scene in Las Vegas. www.qvegas.com
Jay Jones last wrote for Travel about Maui's condo controversy. To comment, visit sfgate.com/travel and follow the links.